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Everything You Need to Know to Start Recycling Sweater Yarn – Unraveling & Finishing


Unraveling / Pulling

Congratulations! It’s time to start building a big fat yarn ball, for a teeny tiny fraction of what it would cost at a yarn boutique.

And this is just the sleeve!

You may be tempted to just pull and pull, amassing a huge pile of unraveled yarn beside you. Unless you want a huge headache later, DON’T DO THAT. Your yarn will tangle in a big way when you try to wind it back up. Instead, wind your yarn up into a ball as you go, continuing to wind with every few rows that you pull.

There’s just not a whole lot to say about this part of the process. You pull. You wind. Pull. Wind. It would be pretty Zen except for burrs. Remember those?

Top: Behold the burr – it’s wrapped between the yarn I’m pulling and the next loop on the seam-stitch chain.
Bottom: The same burr, highlighted in red.

They’re little loose strands of fiber that wrap themselves up around two strands of yarn in the sweater, making them appear connected.  They happen most frequently at the edges of a knit piece. The one pictured above is a really mild one. Sweaters with higher content of fuzzy fiber (mohair, angora, alpaca, etc), even sweaters with a high content of regular wool, are prone to bad ones.

At 54% alpaca, this sweater is composed of 100% burr.

If you get a burr so bad you can’t tell what is yarn strand and what is loose fiber, get in there with your trusty seam ripper and poke around.  A gentle tug can help reveal things too, but whatever you do, don’t just pull and pull at the tangle, that will only make it worse.

The only other advice I can offer for defeating these things is just keep at it – practice makes it a lot easier to recognize and deal with them. Once you figure out where the problem is, get the crook of the seam ripper in there and sever the fibers forming the burr.

Another good reason I don’t use scissors is that it leaves the tiny bits of seam yarn hooked around the ends of the rows, making pulling later on somewhat more complicated. The yarn gets stuck on the seam bits, and if you are already pulling a yarn that is prone to burrs this just intensifies the frustrations.

Hint! Recognizing a double knit – It’s not easy to tell a double knit sweater when selecting a victim. Unless you’re really good, you probably won’t know until you break in – when you discover you have two strands to pull instead of one. No worries though, because it’s really not so much harder than having one single strand – but you can’t pull several rows of one and not the other. My method is to pull them together and wind them separately if I want thin yarn, or just wind them together if I want a thicker strand.


You’re almost there! By now you should have several balls of yarn harvested from the pieces of sweater you separated earlier. You will also have noticed that it’s wrinkly and kinky, still retaining some of the shape it took when it was a knit sweater. If’n you prefer, you can leave it just like that and be done with this project. If you do that and then make another garment from this yarn, you may suffer a minor change of shape and size when you wash and block the finished piece. If that doesn’t bother you, then stick a fork in yourself because you’re done.

If you intend to get the kinks out of your yarn, you are going to need something to wind your yarn ball onto to form a loop. The back of a chair works just fine, but I infinitely prefer a niddy noddy, a little handheld device that not only winds your yarn into a convenient loop, but also measures yardage. I made one cheaply out of PVC pipe – the instructions are here at the Anticraft.

Wind your yarn up onto your device until you run out of yarn ball. Use small lengths of yarn or string to tie the bundle in 4-6 different places, loosely, then slip the yarn off of your winding device. Do this with every ball.

Next, get a bucket, tub, bowl, or clean sink and fill it with enough luke-cold water to cover your yarn. Dunk all of your yarn bundles, making sure to leave them submerged long enough to get it soaked through. Don’t agitate it. Gently press it under if you must (I usually must).

It’s not lunch, it’s recycled yarn!

After it’s soaked, remove your yarn and lay it on a towel or hold it over the sink to GENTLY squeeze excess water out. It should still be wet feeling when you’re done, but not dripping water. Grab your hangers – I use two for every individual bundle,  but you can double up – it just takes slightly longer to fully dry if you do.

Loop the bundle around one hanger and hook the second to the bottom of the loop.

When I first started recycling sweater yarn I used a can to weigh down my yarn after dousing it, until I received some wonderful advice – just use another hanger. Cans are too heavy and will overstretch your wet yarn, not to mention they are difficult to balance on the yarn! Hook the top of a solid plastic hanger at the bottom, give it a little tug, and let it hang.

I have used a steam iron to straighten out the kinks in my yarn before, but it was not worth the trouble at all, and if you’re dealing with a sweater that’s part synthetic materials, you risk accidentally altering the feel of your fibers. These days I leave my yarns to hang in the laundry room and forget about them for a few days until they are dry.

(Left to right) Two recycled cotton sweater yarns and a fun primitive-look handspun.

Hint! If you want to speed drying, wait about half a day and then rotate the bundle on the hangers. The top will have dried more, as gravity pulled the water to the bottom of the bundle. Putting the wetter part at the top will spread the water out again as it flows downward, speeding evaporation.

Once your yarn is dry, it’s done. Wind it back up into the ball or skein style of your choice. This is a good time to have a yarn swift and winder, but as for me I haven’t budgeted for those yet.
You may want to measure your yardage. You can do this using the niddy noddy and counting wraps, or you can do it the lazy way by counting out a few yards and weighing it via your trusty digital scale. Grab a calculator – the formula for grams per yard is total weight / yardage. So say I weighed 10 yards and it registered at 2 g… that would mean the yarn weighs .2 g per yard.

You may ALSO want to measure WPI (wraps per inch) of your yarn – this is also a factor in determining yarn weights and categories, and it’s an easy one. Grab a good ol’ plastic ruler and start wrapping around, not overlapping your yarn but laying each wrap closely beside the other. However many wraps it takes to cover an inch is your WPI.

BUT WAIT! You can re-spin or dye your recycled yarn! Instructions for those things aren’t included here, but maybe someday I will get around to it. You’re probably tired of reading now anyway.

Or maybe you were two posts ago.

Recycled Nylon/Angora/Wool blend, re-spun to add more FLOOF

If you have feedback on this tutorial, I beg of you to leave it here good sir or madame.

Getting Started & Breaking In V.1

Breaking In V.2


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